PV’s duty to lead EHS, sustainability

With $80B in grants and incentives set aside for clean technology, there has never been a better time for the PV solar industry. But enjoying the reputation of a clean industry at the forefront of the new green economy also carries higher expectations for leadership in environmental, health, and safety (EHS) and sustainability. Industry leaders should take a leadership stance on the management of EHS risks, stakeholder engagement, and transparency.

by Tim Mohin, principal consultant and sustainability practice leader, EORM

As the climate warms, energy supplies dwindle, and pollution concerns rise, the clean energy produced by the photovoltaic industry is needed more than ever before. This industry’s explosive growth has been fueled by government incentives and mandates such as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), also known as “the stimulus package.” With approximately $80 billion set aside for clean technology investments in the form of direct grants and tax incentives, there has never been a better time for the PV industry.

Hailed as a preeminent clean energy solution, PV solar has garnered support and accolades from government officials and the public alike. This praise is richly deserved for a product that can make needed energy from sunlight while replacing other polluting and resource-depleting energy sources.

A wise person once said that the best time to question your strategy is when everything is going well. This is especially true for the environmental, health, and safety issues within the PV solar industry. During this period of unprecedented growth and support, when it seems like nothing can go wrong, the industry needs to be especially diligent to ensure that EHS challenges are assessed and mitigated.

As discussed in the initial article in this series, the PV industry shares a common ancestry with the semiconductor industry in both its processes and rapid growth. The same linkage can be made for EHS issues. During the period of rapid growth, the semiconductor industry could have — and should have — been a more diligent steward of the environment and employee safety. What resulted were several highly publicized and costly problems ranging from groundwater pollution to employee injuries.

As the PV industry grows, leading companies would be wise to heed the EHS lessons learned from the expansion of the semiconductor industry. By focusing on these risks now, the PV industry can avoid significant costs and irreparable reputation damage. And, by the way, it is the right thing to do.

So what are some of the key EHS lessons to be learned from the semiconductor industry? The first and most important lesson is to take early action to assess and proactively manage EHS risks. The key message is that it is cheaper and more effective to prevent injuries and environmental damage than to mitigate them after the fact. Through effective design and process changes, the semiconductor industry was able to eliminate hazardous materials and greatly reduce its EHS risks even as growth was soaring.

In addition to responsible management of EHS risks though tested management systems approaches, the PV solar industry should adopt policies and practices for leadership in sustainable development. The foundation of sustainable development is the “triple bottom line” — producing benefits for the environment, the economy, and social conditions. The PV industry already has a leg up here, by virtue of making a product that creates jobs and profits by producing clean energy. Through meaningful engagement with stakeholders and full disclosure of challenges and opportunities, this industry can build trust, establish long-term credibility, and add some important perspectives.

As a case in point, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, an environmental activist group formed to raise awareness of EHS concerns stemming from the semiconductor industry, recently published a white paper on the EHS risks of the solar energy industry (“Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Energy Industry”) , outlining a series of recommendations for the industry to assess and manage EHS risks. This is an early indication that the public will be closely watching the EHS performance in the PV industry.

A clear message highlighted by this white paper is the importance of transparency with the public on EHS and social responsibility issues. By outlining goals, challenges, progress, and plans, the PV industry can allay fears borne from a lack of knowledge and trust. With non-competitive EHS and social responsibility issues, it is nearly impossible to over-communicate.

Some PV companies have established an early lead in issuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports. For example, SolarWorld’s 2008 Report integrates sustainability and financial data and was rated as an A+ by the Global Reporting Initiative.

Many PV companies have yet to issue public communications on these issues due to other pressing priorities, perceiving that these efforts are resource-intensive or that there is a “halo effect” of simply being in clean tech. The reality is that transparency need not be overly resource-intensive and can provide substantial return on investment in building the reputation of your company as a responsible corporate citizen.

While the PV solar industry currently enjoys the reputation of a clean industry at the forefront of the new green economy, this reputation carries higher expectations for outstanding performance in environment, health, safety, and sustainability. To fulfill the promise of the new clean economy, PV solar industry leaders should take a leadership stance on the management of EHS risks, stakeholder engagement, and transparency.

Tim Mohin is principal consultant and sustainability practice leader at Environmental and Occupational Risk Management (EORM). E-mail: mohint@eorm.com.

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